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Trigger Terms: Harmful Detours and Healing Redirects

Words matter. The ways we interpret and use — or avoid using — words can make all the difference in enabling critical conversations, shaping perceptions, building common ground for collaborative action, and much more. However, there is no set list of the “right” words to use. Meanings continually shift and appear with wide ripple effects. Often, those changes come with growing pains, as uncertainty and disagreement around definitions turn words into “trigger terms” for polarization and conflict.

Addressing key trigger terms in the current media, social and political climates, ULC’s Harmful Detours and Healing Redirects framework is designed to help leaders grow alignment, surface misunderstandings and find paths forward through difficult conversations. Each term listed below includes examples of interpretations that can derail productive conversations (“harmful detours”) as well as suggested language to foster mutual respect and understanding (“healing redirects”).

The terms included on this page receive ongoing additions and updates. Please contact info@urbanlibraries.org with questions.

Trigger Terms for: Talking About Race and Racism

    The language below has been developed with the expert guidance of ULC's Anti-Racism action team.

    Anti-Racism

    HARMFUL DETOURSHEALING REDIRECTS
    “Anti-racism” is just another way of talking about equity, diversity and inclusion in our library/community. We don’t need separate discussions, activities or language focused on anti-racism.One of the most powerful barriers to recognizing and dismantling racist systems is the difficulty many people experience with talking directly about race and racism. Equity, diversity and inclusion are critical focus areas for libraries, but those terms can refer to a broad range of issues and activities that touch racism only tangentially, if at all. Using the right words is required for doing the right work and getting the right results. If the library is serious about its commitment to eliminating racism, then the institution’s leadership must name anti-racism as a priority and engage both external and internal stakeholders in conversations explicitly addressing issues of race.
    By urging me to engage in anti-racist education or work, you are calling me a racist. I am not a racist, so I don’t need to participate in anti-racist education/work.Just because a person is not a racist does not mean they are an anti-racist. Racism is an enduring and malignant force that will not end without intentional, sustained and collective action. Anti-racists do more than passively avoid racist behaviors and attitudes. They commit to actively and consciously confronting racism wherever they encounter it, in themselves and in the world around them. This work is a lifelong journey without a stopping point – there is always room to grow and contribute to anti-racist progress.

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    Last updated: 8/19/2021. ©2021 Urban Libraries Council.

    Black Lives Matter

    HARMFUL DETOURSHEALING REDIRECTS
    Support for Black Lives Matter is a partisan stance, which isn’t appropriate for the library as a politically neutral institution.Standing to actively and visibly affirm that Black Lives Matter is about human rights and is a direct extension of the library’s core mission and values. One of our key roles is leading our community toward a more equitable, inclusive and prosperous future by addressing critical societal challenges, which isn’t possible without activism, advocacy and bringing people together. The systemic racism embedded in our society is a serious threat to the health and strength of our community, which is why the library believes it is not only appropriate – but vital – to support the Black Lives Matter social movement with our actions and voice.
    You should say “All Lives Matter.” Saying “Black Lives Matter” implies that the library devalues non-Black individuals.The library strongly believes that all lives matter, which is precisely why we are vocal in our support for the Black Lives Matter social movement. Our society is built on racist systems of oppression that disproportionately endanger, dehumanize and marginalize the lives of Black community members. These injustices flourish when they are met with silence or camouflaged in generalizations like “All Lives Matter.” It is vital to call out and drive action on anti-Black racism in order to build a world in which everyone is treated like their life matters.

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    Last updated: 8/19/2021. ©2021 Urban Libraries Council.

    Microaggression

    HARMFUL DETOURSHEALING REDIRECTS
    If I don’t mean any harm,
    I can’t commit a microaggression.
    What defines microaggressions are their impact. They can be both intentional and unintentional, whether they are verbal, behavioral or environmental (e.g., a lack of representative diversity in library signage). While microaggressions occur between individuals, their origins and impact are more than personal. They are inseparable from the macro systems they reinforce. Because they are so deeply embedded in society, it can be difficult to recognize microaggressions without applying a systemic lens.
    They are called “micro” aggressions because they are insignificant. Talking about them is a sign of “victim mentality.”Microaggressions are often subtle, but research shows that their impact can be profound and just as harmful as more overt discrimination. While a single microaggression may be a slight event, they occur multiple times each day for many members of marginalized groups, causing serious long-term harm to physical and mental health and well-being.

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    Last updated: 8/19/2021. ©2021 Urban Libraries Council.

    Reparations

    HARMFUL DETOURSHEALING REDIRECTS
    The enslavement of Black Americans is ancient history. No one from that time is alive today. Reparations represent an unearned “handout” for Black Americans in the 21st-century.While slavery no longer exists in the U.S., its enduring legacy is undeniable. Descendants of slaves account for 12% of all Americans but hold below 2% percent of the country’s wealth. Since the abolishment of slavery, the federal government has sustained the Black-white wealth gap through policies deliberately designed to exploit the labor of Black Americans and block them from accumulating wealth, including discriminatory homeownership, education and business development laws. The $11 trillion wealth gap that now exists between Black and white Americans cannot be closed solely through affirmative action programs or – as is often suggested – hard work. Large-scale federal intervention and investment is necessary. And, since the federal government established the Black-white wealth gulf and has continued to reinforce it for centuries, that intervention is both justified and long overdue.
    Why should only Black Americans receive reparations?Reparations for Black Americans would not diminish any other group’s suffering or need for compensation, nor would it be unprecedented. Previously, U.S. government programs have provided reparations for groups such as Indigenous and Japanese Americans.

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    Last updated: 8/22/2021. ©2021 Urban Libraries Council.

    White Privilege/White Advantage

    HARMFUL DETOURHEALING REDIRECT
    Talking about “white privilege” or “white advantage” is an over-generalization. Just because I am white does not mean success has come easily to me. I’ve had a hard life, so “white privilege” does not describe my reality.Recognizing that all white people benefit from white privilege does not mean discounting any individual’s personal struggles. That is because the advantages of white privilege are not personal, they are systemic and structural. No matter what difficulties a white person faces in their life, they will never experience disadvantages due to systemic racism. That reality provides privileges to white individuals, further amplified or lessened by other facets of their identity (such as gender, income, education). White privilege is not something that people gain or lose. It cannot be surrendered or displaced by good intentions. It is an inescapable fact of structural racism, ingrained so deeply in societal norms and systems that it can be difficult to see, especially for white individuals who – because of their inherited position of power – experience white privilege as “a given.”

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    Last updated: 8/17/2021. ©2021 Urban Libraries Council.

    White Supremacist Culture

    HARMFUL DETOURHEALING REDIRECT
    White supremacist culture refers to the beliefs and actions of extremist hate groups. By asking me to interrogate and address white supremacist culture in my daily life or in our community, you are implying that I am associated with extremist hate groups, which makes me uncomfortable.White supremacist culture is not limited to fringe groups or institutions. It refers to all practices and beliefs that perpetuate the harmful myth of white racial superiority and centrality. In many cases, actions and attitudes that reinforce white supremacist culture are unconscious, since the systems of structural racism are deeply embedded in societal norms. Refusal or inability to acknowledge white supremacist culture is one of the most powerful forces propping it up. Because white individuals benefit from the privilege of white supremacist culture, they are often able to navigate daily life without having to consider their own racial identity. As a result, it is often easy for them to ignore or underplay the realities of non-white biases, exclusion and oppression. Effectively uprooting systemic racism will require white individuals to overcome feelings of fragility and discomfort when examining their contributions to white supremacist culture, as well as a commitment to necessary change.

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    Last updated: 8/17/2021. ©2021 Urban Libraries Council.